Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Debbie Teoh's Super Duper Nyonya Cuisine!!

‘Super Nyonya Cuisine’ - IWFS March 2013

We sometimes don't recognise how blessed we are foodwise here in Malaysia. Pretty much all the cuisines of the world can be found here and the standard is pretty much okay. Maybe not as fine as that found in Hong Kong and increasingly in Singapore, but we do all right. 

We also sometimes forget and often take for granted the various styles of cooking that are native to this country we call our adopted home. The Chinese styles, the Indian styles and the Malay styles all have their unique tastes and textures that delight and amuse.  And with a llittle imagination and a sense of adventure, wines can be paired with pretty much all of it. 

Dr Stephen Hall with Mr and Mrs George Lee
But whilst the Malaysian government looks to promote unity in this still relatively young nation, such melding of the ethnic origins has yet to manifest itself in the cuisine. It remains difficult to say with conviction that there is one singular Malaysian style of cooking, as one might say of Japan or Italian for example. In this era of OneMalaysia, the lines between the cooking styles remain pretty well drawn. 

Though when the lines do blur and cross over and the cuisines are allowed to blend they can throw up some very tasty and delightful results.

One wonderful example of this is the Nyonya style of cooking. The story goes that when the men from China came to Malacca to trade over seven hundred years ago, they didn't bring any ladies with them from the homeland. So they did what trading men do and settled down to set up house with the local ladies. Thus was born the Baba Nyonya (also known as Peranakan) community which, over the years, has developed its  own distinctive language, attire, architecture, jewellery, crockery, celebrations and cuisine.

This cuisine of the Peranakan community is a true fusion cuisine, marrying Chinese, South-East Asian and European elements. Nyonya food is delicious and unique, with an incredible repertoire of seafood and meat dishes, salads, sambals, curries, appetisers, soups, sweets, broths, cakes, custards and desserts. The ingredients need to be fresh and many of them, such as ginger flower, lemon grass, kaffir lime, pandan, galangal, bird’s eye chilli and wild pepper leaves are grown in the garden.

Dato' Jeremy Diamond with Dato' and Datin Weiler
In the past, the recipes would be passed from mother to daughter in the kitchen, where the nyonyas were trained by their mothers to excel in culinary skills and become good homemakers. Indeed, the word Nyonya was a term of affectionate respect for the society ladies of the day. Today, the use of fresh ingredients, labour-intensive preparation, communalism in preparation and emphasis on gentleelness and perfection that are the hallmarks of Peranakan cuisine are disappearing, though occasional pockets of excellence can still be found. The Peranakan culture and traditions are being swallowed up in this world where instant and speedy gratificaiton is the expected norm. Delicate trade offs of texture and zesty piquancy get swept aside in favour of a fast bowl of noodles from the local hawker. Still tasty, just not… memorable.

So it was that following on from our very well received Korean adventure at the Onsemiro in February, the IWFS Kuala Lumpur decided to come back home to feast on some authentic, tasty Nyonya dishes for the March event. Veteran member Dr Stephen Hall had been extolling the virtues of his native New Zealand wines and their ability to pair wonderfully with the cooking of his wife of Peranakan descent Dr Lee Su Kim and had wanted to stage a dinner for members for some time. To aid in this, they had managed to secure the services of renowned chef, author and Nyonya food consultant Debbie Teoh to prepare her authentic dishes in true Nyonya fashion. 

Dr Su Kim, Sharon and Datin Kalsom
It was billed as an evening of "Super Nyonya Cuisine" and those who had been to the tasting found the food and wines very super indeed. Chef Debbie had been allowed to hijack the kitchen at the Park Royal Hotel Chatz Brasserie and had served up some adorable dishes. For some reason, only thirty nine members and friends signed up for the event and most came sportingly dressed in traditional Baba Nyonya styles as had been requested by IWFS Committee in the notice. Our friend the Doc had decided to decline on this occasion. His argument was that true Nyonya food needed at least a hint of the porcine, as is the style served and prepared in Penang. Well, and maybe though there didn't seem to have been anything lacking at the tasting. But then one should never trust a white man to recommend food to a chinaman foodie. Some say never trust a white man period, but let's not go there, eh?

For the actual event, the hotel shifted us to the Si Chuan Dou Hua Chinese restaurant. Not entirely sure why, but it made for more convivial table seating on traditional Oriental style round tables. Very stylish ambiance of opulent golds, browns and reds, with easy lighting and lovely touches of ornamentation. The gold cutlery was a nice touch - like getting transported back to a banquet at a palace in the Chinese Middle Kingdom though with modern touches and a decent kitchen. And airconditioning.

The welcoming Daniel Le Brun No 8 was a most welcome glass of fizz and showed off the winemaker’s Champagne origins. A traditional method sparkling wine which had spent time on lees, the notes spoke of a "full mouth feel and a good example of chardonnay and Kiwi Pinot bubbles with bready notes and a full finish." A little lighter than fizz served at previous dinners and with a tendency to sweetness and lemon in the mouth, but very friendly nonetheless and a good ice breaker that got people talking. Clearly a lot of work and thought had gone into the selection of the dishes and the wines by Dr Stephen and Dr Su which was much appreciated by all and acknowledged by President Rajan. Following a minute silence to mark the recent passing of long term member Dr Albert Lim that preceded some background on Peranakan cuisine and Kiwi wines by Dr Stephen and Dr Su Kim to introduce the evening, we were off. 

Pie Tee and Ju Hu Char
First out were the Pie Tee with Crabmeat and the Classic "Ju Hu Char". Presented on a longish white plate, this was a combo of two nyonya delicacies. The Pie Tee is a crispy wafer shell that looks like an upside down top hat and filled with stir fried yam bean, crabmeat and shrimps. Dab a little chili on top and you're done. There's a lovely fusion as you bite through the wafer into the chunky cream of the yam and through the crabmeat that delights the tongue and when the not so fiery chili sets the tastebuds tingling you know that you're in for a good evening. 

The Ju Hu Char is a typical nyonya dish that is made out of shredded cabbage, carrot and turnip topped with with a dash of sambal and sweet chili and eaten wrapped in lettuce leaf. It is a light, crispy and refreshing appetiser, and with the vegetables textures and fresh crispy feel in the mouth, one feels automatically healthy and good about the food choices we have so far made for the night. The secret ingredient is the shredded cuttlefish (the jiu hu see) which gives its distinctive flavour of textured salty creamy yum.

The partly barrel fermented and crisply enjoyable Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2011 came across as somewhat understated and restrained: clean and lean though complex enough to interest with fresh light citrus on the palate and finishing long and firm. Grown in the Wairau Valley Marlborough by former Cloudy Bay winemaker, Kevin Judd, the notes spoke of "a rounded and layered wine with rich grapefruit flavours with oak hints and leading to a finely textured dry finish."  The relatively low acidity compared to most SB meant that the Greywacke made it a wonderful partner with the crabmeat. The hint of low fire sambal belacan and the textures of the Pie Tee shell on the Yam Bean meshed excellenty with the wine, giving a sense of light and peace in the tastebud soul. Excellent match. 

Hiew Piew Fish Maw Soup
The Ohau Gravels Pinot Gris 2011 was quite a stunner. Billed as an increasingly fashionable varietal from the new Kapiti Coast region north of Wellington, the notes spoke of "backbone and some minerality to the full mouth feel of stone fruit and ripe pears. For me, it came across as spicily aromatic with hints of smoky pear and peach, layered and textured and with all the hallmarks of a siren of a wine. Far too easy to drink for anyone's good, it went down like honeyed syrup without the gooey sticky cloying in the mouth sweetness. Like the bottle in Alice's Wonderland, this wine kept saying "Drink Me" and we did. Very copiously. 

Pairing with the Hiew Piew of fish maw and dumplings made sense. The slightly salty and light chicken broth tempered the spice enough to let the fruit tantalise even more whilst the prawn balls lent an interesting fish meaty chew to give the wine something to mix with. Fish maw is more a texture thing, with little in the way of taste but the texture is something between soft sponge and elastic band rubber. The full body of the Pinot Gris compensated for a somewhat thin feel of the soup though the vegetables remained perfect crunch. I seem to remember the soup at the tasting having slightly more body. The coriander gave a nice zip and stalky bite. 

The Otak Otak
Next up was the entree Otak Otak. Traditionally a blend of fish, coconut milk, chili paste, galangal and herbs wrapped in a banana leaf, Debbie's offering came in a bowl filled with chunky seafood and to be eaten with a hunk of toasted bread. Served with a mango kerabu and mint leaf, this was indeed a hearty filling bowl of chunky seafood in a rich almost solid sauce. On its own, the stew was tending toward liquid mush, with the whipped blend of egg, spice and coconut congealing nicely around the prawn and other ex-marine life whilst leaving a watery soup in its wake. Pairing with white bread toast was genius, giving much needed carbo and foundation to this gunky delicious mix. 

Pairing the otak otak with the Pinot Gris was equal genius. The sugar in the wine all but vanished leaving perfume and spice and pear whilst the gunk took out the syrup to leave a honey sleek finishing coat around the tongue and throat. A top drop that drank a treat. 

The slightly sour calamansi sorbet was a refreshing twist on the usual lemon or apple offerings and paved the way for the Keluak Chicken or Ayam Buah Keluak.  This is a dish that combines pieces of chicken (ayam) with the nut from the Kepayang tree (Buah Keluak). Looking like a small black football, this little baby is initially poisonous and needs some long and painstaking preparation to become edible. This involves soaking the nuts, forty days fermentation, grinding into paste and re-stuffing the mix back into the shell. This is before cooking. Traditionally it is slow braised with the meat and often sometimes left for days after to let the flavours in the nut develop. 

Ayam Buah Keluak
Since the start of the dinner everyone had been intrigued by the fact that a single chopstick had been placed alongside the rest of the cutlery. The mystery was resolved when Dr Stephen explained that it was to be used to scoop out the spicy mix from the Buah nut and be added to the chicken and rice. Ah so. So, scooped out the black and evil looking mix duly was and what an intruiging taste it turned out to be. Nutty, of course, but with a sweetish smoky saltiness and texture of thick earthy ground paste. It was total umami with bounce and bite and went gangbusters with the rice, which had the effect of leaving the poor but tender and tasty chicken and gravy to play second fiddle to the dish. 

There were two award winning Pinot Noirs paired with the dish - the Wooing Tree Beetle Juice Cromwell 2010 and the Mudhouse Golden Terraces 2010. Both hailing from Otago and showing off some fantastic flavours, one came across so smooth and fragrant and balanced that it stole the night from the Pinot Gris. Unfortunately both Pinots got confused on the table so which one this actually was remains a mystery. Judging from the notes, it was probably the Beetle Juice. Handpicked and matured for 11 months in French barriques, it was full coloured with strong ripe plum and cherry and spice flavours  and oh so approachable! And the winery supports the natural world,  with a percentage of profits being channelled to support an endangered beetle ecosystem. How can you not love a wine that looks after beetles? In contrast, the Decanter Gold Medal Mudhouse is grown in a single vineyard in an old gold mining area.The notes say it is oak matured, with full fruit and sweet spice in excellent balance with crisp acidity and good weight. More a traditional style Kiwi Pinot than the Beetle Juice, with muscular boldness in the mouth and firm flavours on the finish. A man's Pinot. In fairness, neither really paired well with the Chicken, though one would guess their main function was to stand up to the Buah Keluak. Which they both did. Those who still had some of the Pinot Gris in the glass would have found a better match for the chicken. 

Nyonya Sago Gula Melaka
The desserts were totally off the map. First out was the classic Nyonya Sago Gula Melaka which came out looking like a mini Guinness on top of a cream cloud in a wine glass and was brilliant. Also known as Palm Sugar, Gula Melaka comes from the sap collected from the flower buds of coconut trees. The sap is boiled until it thickens and then poured into containers to set. It makes the spicy caramel syrup that is poured over sago pudding and topped off with coconut milk to create this most beloved of Nyonya sweeteners. Tonight's offering had a nice spicy zing fire to it and paired with the creamy coconut milky and chewy sweet sago magnificently.  Debbie's signature Panforte was also on the table - date and fig and almond nut combos dusted with icing sugar and all texture and dreamy sinful fruit taste. Total sticky date chewy heaven. Everyone should get so lucky and try this once in their lives. Unforgettable.

Needless to say that the desserts killed the Pinot Noir though the Pinot Gris gave a sweet undercurrent and foundation to the dates in the Panforte. This really is such a versatile wine, pairing well with soup, spicy chicken and can do dessert at a pinch. Woke up the following morning feeling muzzy and bleaaagh with a mouth like a ferret yet still tasting the Pinot Gris. Thankfully the morning espresso helped in getting ready for the day. Not much, but enough to kickstart.  

Overall comments ranged from the superlative to the "okay-lah" though the latter were very well in the minority. Waiter Service was generally fine and friendly, with wine being poured quite generously. Food came out all together nicely presented and little to no waiting time for all to start together. One comment of soup coming out cold, getting sent back, and coming out cold again and not pursuing it with staff. Another felt that Otak Otak should only be served in Banana Leaf. Well, and maybe from a purist traditional perspective this might have some weight, but the logistics of getting Banana Leaf into a four star hotel kitchen and chef preparing and presenting the dish in a traditional nyonya kitchen manner seems a shade extreme. It is the Park Royal Hotel, not Malacca hawker stall. Chefs do with what chefs have and cope accordingly.

For me, the wines and the matching were fantastic, although the "Super" in the "Super Nyonya" was slightly lacking when compared to the original tasting we'd had previously. Whilst I felt Chef Debbie did fantastically well, both the Otak Otak and the soup felt more refined and lacking something that had seemed magical in the original presentation. But different is far from bad, and the fault often lies in our expectations. When they have been elevated by as memorable a night as they had in the original tasting, the second time around can often feel a shade diminished. Like going to see Les Miserables or Miss Saigon again - it's still good but somewhat less so than the magical first time. Increased numbers can also impact the food - time spent in pan waiting for plate and transport to table can mean the food continues to cook longer than is good. But all this is technical and should not detract from what was a wonderful evening of great wine, great food and shared with good friends from the IWFS. Kudos to the ladies who sportingly wore their best baju and looked totally resplendent and gorgeous. Some of the men also weren't too bad in their batik shirts either. A fun and entertaining night, made all the more so by Dr Stephen sharing some Kiwi noises and chants and much vinous information throughout the evening. Cheers!!

Photos kind courtesy of Jan Shaw

Post Script: Seems that Chef Debbie lost her long time sous chef between the tasting and the dinner, which would explain the difference between the two. 

Table flower arrangement
‘Super Nyonya Cuisine’ IWFS Kuala Lumpur March 28th 2013 Park Royal Hotel

Daniel Le Brun No 8 Sparkling, Marlborough

Appetisers - Pie Tee with Crabmeat and Classic ‘Ju Hu Char’
Crispy Shell Filled with stir fried yam bean and Crabmeat and Shrimps 
Paired with Stir Fried Bean and Dried Squid topped with Sambal Belachan ‘Ji Hu Char’

Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough 2011

Soup - Hiew Piew
Fish Maw & Prawn Dumplings in a Chicken Broth with Sweet Turnip, Cabbage and Carrots Enhanced with Coriander and Garlic Crisps

Ohau Gravels Pinot Gris 2011

Entrée - Otak-Otak
Debbie Teoh's Panforte - wonderful!!
Spicy Chunky assorted Seafood with herbs in a Coconut Egg Custard served with Toasted Baguette     and accompanied with Mango Kerabu

Ohau Gravels  Pinot Gris 2011

Calamansi Sorbet

Main Course - Keluak Chicken
Accompanied with Fragrance Rice, Cucumber Pickle and Nyonya Sambal Belachan

Wooing Tree Beetle Juice Pinot Noir, Central Otago 2010
Mudhouse Golden Slopes Otago Pinot Noir 2010

Dessert - Classic Nyonya Sago Gula Melaka
Sago Pearls with Coconut Milk and Palm Sugar Syrup

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